Correction Appended Feb. 22, 2012
Maybe the Vatican is not so good at keeping secrets after all. In the past few weeks, the Holy See has sprung a series of leaks. Their contents range from allegations of corruption and cronyism in Rome, to internal criticism of a Vatican effort to tackle money laundering, to a bizarre letter speculating about an assassination attempt on Pope Benedict XVI.
Each leak would be embarrassing enough on its own. Together, they add up to a picture of disarray at the top tiers of the Catholic Church, even as the Vatican admitted 22 more clerics to the College of Cardinals on Saturday, expanding the ranks of those who could one day become pope. "The real news isn't the content of these documents," says Andrea Tornielli, a long-time Vatican watcher. "It's the fact that all these documents are coming out at the same time."
Just who the leaks have in their sights is less than clear. In a statement posted Monday on the Vatican Radio's website, the spokesman for the Holy See, Federico Lombardi, compared the rapid-fire disclosures to the Wikileaks revelations in the United States and seemed to imply that the documents were being released in order to discredit the church. "We must resist and not allow ourselves to be swallowed by the whirlpool of confusion, which is what those with bad intentions want," Lombardi wrote.
A likely target is Pope Benedict XVI's second-in-command, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Appointed in 2006 to run the day-to-day affairs of the Vatican while the pope focused on affairs of the spirit, Bertone has faced fierce opposition from the Vatican's diplomatic staff, which has made little secret that it regards him as an outsider. Bertone's predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano refused to vacate his office for months after his appointment. Bertone has also been accused of maneuvering to increase the likelihood that the next pope is an Italian. Cardinals must be younger than 80 to be able to vote for ta new pope. Of the 18 new cardinals who meet that criteria, seven are Italian.
The most damaging revelations are leaked letters from the Holy See's ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who until last October was in charge of the Vatican's efforts at financial reforms. Naming names close to Bertone, they make allegations of crooked contracting and of a campaign of defamation against the Secretary of State. Slightly less scandalous are a series of memos criticizing a high-profile effort to reform the Vatican bank, calling the proposals flawed and full of loopholes. The most off-the-wall leak is an anonymous document reporting a conversation in which an Italian cardinal on a trip to China speculated that the pope would be dead within a year and replaced by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan. Scola has decline to comment.
The letter is bizarre, recounting in German a conversation an Italian cardinal conducted with Chinese catholics. According to the text, the statements of Cardinal were madeapparently made with such certainty and firmness that his interlocutors in China thought with horror that an attack was being planned against the Holy Father.
According to Sandro Magister, editor of the Rome-based website Chiesa (Italian for church), the flurry of revelations is in part the consequence of a long-running degradation in the quality of the Vatican staff, dating back to the reign of John Paul II, who put global evangelism over the day-to-day running of the bureaucracy. "His horizon was the world," says Magister. "He lived for travelling. Of the roman curia he didn't care much about." Meanwhile, local bishops facing plummeting numbers in the ranks of priests began withholding their best men for themselves. "Bertone has found himself to be the number one of a Vatican curia that's very disorganized and of very low quality," says Magister. "And he hasn't been able to put it in order."
In this view, the leaks are in part attacks on Bertone's administration, but also the manifestation of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, driven by internal rivalries and the beginnings of the inevitable battle for succession. "You've got lots of groups, clans, small and medium, that in the confusion are fighting with each other," says Magister.
Of course, for the moment, Benedict shows few signs of leaving. Though he turns 85 in April and has begun to show signs of his age, he wouldn't be the first pope to defy expectations. "I've seen lots of candidates for pope die before the last pope did," says Tornielli.
The original version of the story said the Pope had elevated 22 more bishops to the College of Cardinals. Not all of the 22 were bishops.